empty waiting room
Via Martha Dominguez on WordPress: https://unsplash.com/photos/g0PTp89dumc

We reported back in August on how to get tested in New York City and which locations were providing fast results – and which were lagging behind. After documenting my relatively pain-free (except for that awful nasal swab, of course!) experience at Woodhull Hospital, I’ve since gotten three additional tests at that location – in addition to practicing social distancing measures, regularly getting tested in New York helps my peace of mind.

But my last visit for a test, on Friday, Oct. 7, felt much different than the others. I arrived early (8:45 am, about 15 minutes after testing opened) to face the most extensive line I’d seen yet at the testing center – stretching out the main and anterior waiting room and into the hall. I waited more than an hour to get my test, and while I was waiting a nurse told the gathered crowd that some of them might want to come back another day – something I’d never heard staff say before.

Was my testing experience unique, or is testing in New York changing as we head into the winter? We break down what you need to know.


Beginning at the end of September – right as the city was preparing to allow dining inside with limited capacity, and schools were getting ready to welcome students in person –  the city reported its highest daily rate of positive tests since June. Ten neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, many with large Orthodox Jewish populations, began to see positive test rates between three and seven percent. (The border of one of the neighborhoods that has seen spikes, in Williamsburg, is just a short walk away from Woodhull Hospital.)

Positive tests don’t necessarily mean that an infection is spreading, experts say – but the city read the results as a cause for alarm. The city issued new lockdown regulations in the ZIP codes that saw rising test rates, where rates continued to climb over the weekend of Oct. 9. On Oct. 12, Governor Cuomo told reporters that hospitalizations in the city were up in areas where rates were spreading.

While rates have been rising, New York has been adding testing capacity and exploring new methods of testing. The city said in September it would ramp up local testing efforts in neighborhoods hard-hit by the virus and began random testing in schools in early October. It has also invested in a new lab using technology that it says will be able to process up to 20,000 tests per day between 24 and 48 hours by November.


Data provided by the city shows that New Yorkers are showing up to get tested. According to the NYC COVID dashboard, testing spiked in the first week of October to its highest levels ever. At its peak, on Oct. 5 – four days before my Oct. 9 test at Woodhull – more than 52,800 New Yorkers got tested. This number is significantly higher than the last largest testing peak of more than 46,500 on Sept. 8.

Testing data provided by the city shows reliable spikes based on days of the week – peaks usually happen at the beginning of the week, potentially when more people make time to get tested or are motivated to check off a to-do item on their list – meaning there could be more peaks around the corner this month. The city website also notes that data from the last few days is incomplete – meaning that there could still be more tests to be counted from the start of October.

Multiple friends and acquaintances I’ve spoken to say they have noticed some upticks in wait times for testing:

  • Two friends got tested at the New York Health and Hospitals Cumberland location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on Oct. 7 – two days after the Oct. 5 spike. “Wait was about an hour and a half, much longer line than we’ve seen there yet,” one of them told me.
  • “There were long lines [to get into the clinic] outside all through May and into June, but no lines until the past few weeks,” a friend who lives near a City MD location in Park Slope told me. “Now there are lines outside and down the block all day every day again.”

But testing spikes may vary between boroughs, based on our reporting, perhaps because spikes are showing up in Brooklyn and Queens:

  • “I got tested two weeks ago [in Manhattan], right before the uptick started [in late September],” an old coworker told me. “Absolutely no line and I was in and out in 20 min. Makes me think there is more testing in Manhattan and less in outer boroughs where it’s needed more.”
  • “I went to a City MD in Manhattan on [Oct. 6],” another friend said. “Waited maybe 10 mins outside and 5 inside. Got my results [on Oct. 9]. I think City MD is back to being easy and quick because of how bad of a rep it got in early summer.”


Fortunately, despite the influx of new tests, there does not yet seem to be any lag in reporting results from New York Health + Hospitals locations. I received my results back in 30 hours, on a Saturday – a little faster than other times I’ve visited Woodhull – while others I spoke to who got tested at various city locations say their results also came back quickly (within 48 hours, and some within less than a day).

The city is now offering several rapid testing locations in different locations throughout the five boroughs, which allow you to create an appointment at a specific location a few days in advance online (unlike the PCR locations, which appear to be walk-in based). When I visited the site on the morning of Oct. 12, there were several slots available at the location in Crown Heights, which is closest to my house. These tests have lower accuracy than the PCR test, with a higher risk of a false negative, but still provide a quicker result for travel, business, or school. A friend who got a rapid test in late September in Crown Heights told me that you should still be prepared for a small wait when you visit the facility – but your appointment guarantees that you will be tested.

CityMD now also offers rapid tests at its locations and promises results in “15 minutes.” After facing intense criticism for long lags in returning test results over the summer, CityMD now also promises PCR test results in “3 to 4 days.” Unlike the city testing locations, both PCR and rapid testing at CityMD locations are walk-in only.

As New Yorkers return to work and school and face down a winter with a potential second wave of the pandemic, it seems that more people may be going to get tested. We’ll be keeping an eye on the city’s capacity and response to this increase in testing. But if you’re planning to go get tested this month, it might be wise to bring a book – you may be in for a bit of a wait.

Molly Taft

Molly Taft is a  staff writer for Earther, Gizmodo's climate change blog. Her writing has appeared not only at ClearHealthCosts,...